“Memory believes before knowing remembers.” William Faulkner
Visiting an art museum in a new city, I saw this little statuette, and liked it.
I also had an immediate and very strong feeling…like I ought to know her from somewhere.
I’d never been to Pittsburgh before, so it was surprising to run into someone familiar.
There are countless statues like this, drawing on Greek and Roman religion and images, around the older cities of the U.S.. Our museums, public buildings, squares and galleries are pretty much an endless toga party in stone and bronze. But somehow this one caused an instant sense of familiarity.
I don’t usually hang out with people dressed this formally. So where had I met up with her?
A protest march against palm oil production?
A militant vegetarian crosswalk guard?
An advertisement for Ivanka’s new “Agent Orange” line of radioactive spray tan?
It was closing time at the museum, and we were hurriedly hiking out of the back forty, having wandered way out there, out of our comfort zone, way past the post-Impressionists, lost in the surrealist and abstract boonies. Footsore, and in my case, eyesore.
There are never any restrooms in the wings with the more avant-garde art, have you ever noticed? And when there are, I always worry that the fixtures are just some sort of ironic statement, and not meant to be used. I don’t want to get arrested for relieving myself on the priceless “Empty Black Suicidal Despair & Soulessness of Modern Life,” thinking it was a toilet.
Anyways…it was closing time, and we were being flushed out by the security guards, and didn’t have time to read the little sign. So a quick photo with my phone, and two days later, saw the the picture, it instantly popped into my head, where I’d run into this lady, years ago – – walking in the park.
She’d looked bigger then, a bit more weather-worn, but it was definitely her.
We’d met at the southeast entrance to New York’s Central Park, near the Plaza Hotel.
On that busy corner, called the “Grand Army Plaza,” which holds memories for many people of chestnut vendors and horse-drawn carriage rides through the park, she has a companion. Two, actually, if you count the horse. She’s walking in front of William Tecumseh Sherman, the Union general from the Civil War.
She symbolizes “Victory” or “Peace” depending on what tour guide you read.
The turn-of-the-century monument was created by Saint-Gaudens, and was his last major work — a middle-aged William Tecumseh Sherman on horseback, almost sixteen feet high. It’s an excellent statue, like everything the artist did. He’d met with Sherman, and liked him. But by the time the monument was dedicated, on Memorial Day 1903, Sherman had been dead ten years, and Saint-Gaudens had only a few years left himself.
Sherman is famous for pointing out the obvious “War is hell.” Well, the climate in New York ain’t such a picnic, either. Winters can be rough, even if you’re tough and brassy. At the time I took the photo, years ago, both figures looked like hell. Or I should say, like they’d been through the wars — peeling, patchy, leprous, badly in need of re-gilding. The ugly blotched look seems like a distraction from this post, which is about memory, but just as statues are a form of memorial, I suppose loss of memory is a type of corrosion.
My first impression when I saw this scabby-looking statue, was that she was Moira, Goddess from the Department of Health, warning of the oncoming Pestilence on Horseback.
The artist incorporated pine branches under the horse’s feet, to symbolize Sherman’s March through Georgia. Richard Brautigan wrote (with irony, I think) that the Civil War was “the last good time this country every had…” but perhaps the gold-leaf keeps flaking off, as a sign that the war was not all that shiny and happy an experience for some folks.
Periodically, the bronze statues are restored to golden radiance, waxed and buffed, in celebration of civil warfare and burning stuff.
In its distressed state, where the gold leaf had come off, the bronze underneath had oxidized to a very dark color, closer to black, than verdigris.
Turns out, under the Greco-Roman robes and gold paint, Victory was a black woman. The primary model for the statue was a southerner, named Harriette Eugenia Anderson. She was born in Columbia, South Carolina, although she lived most of her life in Harlem.
Anderson also posed for the figure of “Liberty” on the beautiful $20 double eagle, created by Saint-Gaudens at Teddy Roosevelt’s request, and minted the year the artist died, 1907. I saw on a coin collector website, that it is often reckoned to be the most beautiful coin this country has ever created, but almost all of them were melted down, when we left the gold standard.
Another artist relied on her for the 1916 “Walking Liberty” half dollar, and again for the “Victory” in Baltimore’s “Soldiers and Sailor Monument”.
Anderson was almost forgotten for many years. Hard to understand now, but apparently her identity as the model for these beautiful golden works of art was kept hushed up for many years, because she was a person of color.
When I saw the statuette in the museum, and got that strange sense of something akin to “déjà vu,” it got me thinking about what exactly happens, when we rack our memory. We say, “if memory serves…” but sometimes, it just doesn’t. Like a bad waiter, you can snap your fingers, slap your forehead, wave your hands in the air, but it continues to ignore you. And yet, somehow, even when Memory has knocked off early and gone around the corner to have a drink, there remains a nagging sense of recognition and familiarity.
People used to use the term “familiar” for witches’ little supernatural helpers, often disguised as cats. And there is a sense, when that nagging feeling comes over you, of something hovering near you, but unable to be grasped. Like a ghost of a memory, invisible but nagging at you.
Studies of the brain find a real difference between our sense of “familiarity,” and our “memory”. They actually are completely different parts of the brain. So what I was feeling when I saw the statuette in Pittsburgh, was technically not déjà vu, because we’re talking about a delay in recovering a little-used memory, rather than a separate brain function altogether.
Oliver Sacks, the famous neurologist and psychiatrist, described a man who had lost the memory of his wife, but who somehow still retained a strong sense of familiarity in her presence. (Sacks himself suffered from “prosopagnosia” or “face blindness,” the inability to recognize the faces of familiar people, even those he saw frequently.)
Sacks wrote: “Every act of perception, is to some degree an act of creation, and every act of memory is to some degree an act of imagination.”
Proust’s version: “Remembrance of things past is not necessarily the remembrance of things as they were.”
Random Factoid: In reading about this sensation of déjà vu , one site indicates that the people who experience it the most frequently, are age 15-25.
I’m fascinated by the scientific exploration of memory, but don’t know enough about it, to discuss it intelligently. All I want to suggest in this post, is that the next time you feel a sense of familiarity, or déjà vu, take a moment. Pause, look around, breath in the air and its scents, identify the sounds you’re hearing, do a 360, treat yourself to a break from business & busyness for just a few seconds, to see if a memory floats to the surface.
Or “percolates” might be a better term. Like spring water that’s picked up minerals as it passes through the soil and rock layers, our thoughts flow through that mysterious, porous gray matter, and sometimes little particles of memory enter the stream.
For me, the little glinting crystals of memory in the flow, are generally images.
Déjà vu literally means, “already seen,” and based on my limited understanding, it is generally a visual phenomenon.
Music, on the other hand, is preserved in our central brain, right down at the core, and long after all our phone numbers are disconnected and our passwords have passed away. An old tune may bring back memories of a specific time and place, like the theme song from your high school prom, or that high whistling call a red-tail hawk gives, that evokes walking across the farm fields of Seneca County.
My father always talks about a particular train whistle, he’s never known which type of locomotive, that has a cast-iron association with childhood visits to a grandmother in Pennsylvania. Not so much the usual whistle blast, more of a deep hooting horn, echoing along the Lehigh Valley late at night, when he was in an attic bedroom. The vibration from the long trains, or from a thunderstorm, was always joined by a faint chiming sounds, a very musical reverberation from old metal coat hangers, hanging on a hook on the back of the bedroom door. That train horn summons up a dormant memory, but not a mysterious one, since he knows the time and place.
Our sense of smell is supposedly the most powerful prompter of memory, like Proust and his famous madeleines. Personally, I love sponge cake, but the baking smell mostly brings on a mind-clearing “YUM!” and instant salivation, more than a seven-volume remembrance. But every time I open a jar of thyme in the kitchen, the scent instantly carries me back to my grandmother’s house, where it grew in the cracks of her brick walkways.
Other sights may create a more diffused, vague sensation, not tied to a specific incident — the times when we never do recall or recollect a memory, leaving us with that puzzled or even spooky familiarity.
One article suggested it may be your brain discerning a visual pattern it’s seen before, even if you haven’t consciously identified the pattern, and aren’t conscious of the similarity. Another article discussed our brains experiencing something like a computer’s processing delay, so that by the time the thought is complete, it registers as a memory, rather than happening in the present moment.
Well, that’s all I can remember that I wanted to say.
I’d be interested and appreciative, if anyone has a déjà vu experience to share. If you happen to remember one, I mean.
Emily Dickinson and Walt Whitman Go Bicycling in March
Afoot and light-headed I take to the open road,
Unhealthy, coughing, the world of snow before me,
The long white path before me leading wherever is plowed.
Hope is the thing with rubber tires
That perches in a snowdrift,
And hope has feathers, too,
If you run over a chicken during a whiteout.
This is my third winter this year.
It has something to do with hemispheres.
My sister, the science nerd, tells me it involves planetary Tilt & Wobble.
And I believe her, because it does feel like a time of great uncertainty and instability.
Sometimes I question the whole setup of this planet. Why can’t we all just get along, and everyone could have winter at the same time?
Basically, most of us trust that the world keeps spinning and orbiting, I guess, but based on impartial scientific observation, days of tedium are too long, other times the good days speed by, leading me to question the constancy of the Earth’s revolution.
Gravity seems pretty predictable, and generally OK, until I slip on the ice and come down hard, landing somewhere south of the equator, and then think — why don’t we set things up like on the moon, with 83.3% less gravity (just looked it up). I mean, just lighten up a bit.
Not really sure tectonic plates make a lot of sense. Back in 1915, with a world war and so many horrible things already underway, a German geologist named Alfred Wegener somehow thought it a good idea to start up “continental drift”.
Not many people feel comfortable having huge land masses skating around. It’s resulted in rifts.
“Continental” has come to connote a certain sophistication, but the sense of uncertainty has lead to earthquakes, very minimal breakfasts in hotels, the instability of the Weimar Republic, etc.
On a positive note, my sister also tells me that every year, I’m an inch closer to Hong Kong and Singapore.
But this is science, and there’s apparently a law about an equal and opposite reaction. We draw closer to Asia, but the moon is moving away from Earth, did you know that??
You’ve probably sensed we’ve grown more distant and chilly — we never visit anymore.
Without that dynamic relationship, that old devil moon circling around us like a dynamo, this planet’s magnetic shields won’t hold forever. We’ll be pelted with radiation, and comets and so on, most of which are, for pete’s sake, big chunks of ice, like we need more ice around here.
We’re also told that there’s this continuing issue with “geomagnetic pole reversal”. Which is bound to upset Vladimir Putin, now that he owns the North Pole, when it suddenly flips to the other end of the planet.
If you call the United Nations’ IT department about these threats to global stability, they just tell you, try rebooting, and put you on hold.
I could go on with scientific stuff like this, but today’s concern: as a minor side effect of traveling between the northern and southern hemispheres – – I’m currently living through my third winter in a row, meaning, almost continual winter for the better part of a year.
First, Milwaukee, a town where winter doesn’t kid around. Wisconsin can be breathtaking. Not in the sense of being beautiful, but literally so cold it’s hard to breathe some days.
Then Chile, in the foothills of the Andes, not snowy in my region, but with countless icy showers (both outside, and at my unheated hostel). More than twice the rainfall of home, and mostly as a long chilly monsoon.
Third, back home in Upstate New York.
Upstate New Yorkers rival the Aleuts in snow and ice expertise.
The Eskimo terminology may be larger and more detailed, but the NY Winter Vocabulary is more colorful and emphatic, and on occasion, has actually been known to melt things. It’s audible from the cars in ditches, pedestrians careening down icy sidewalks in the teeth of the gale, and homeowners shoveling out their driveways for the third time in 24 hours. The weather may be frigid, but we’re a hot-blooded, short-tempered crowd during the ice age.
Actually, although I do not camp in the winter, neither am I discontented.
I enjoy winter, and am more active in the colder temperatures, than when it’s hot.
We’ve been hiking a bit in the Southern Tier (bordering Pennsylvania), which hasn’t had much snowfall yet this year, and some unusual warm spells.
The beautiful fall leaves are now mostly faded to brown, dark russet, and dull yellow, so the winter woods are pretty drab without the snow.
The ravines often have hemlocks, survivors of the forests that were cut up for lumber in the nineteenth century. I love hemlocks, and their subtle fragrance, but on a gray day, with no snow, they can make for a dark and melancholy woods.
And our last two walks went through stretches of tangled second-growth — former farms that went belly-up during the Depression and were replanted with pines by the CCC or the state.
Sometimes, after eighty years, the abandoned pastures and fields have returned to being groves of mature maple, ash, and shagbark hickory, and are pretty nice woodlands.
Other times, former apple orchards are now a nasty tangle of black raspberry brambles, wild grapevines, and spiky hawthorns. The decaying apple trees are decidedly unlovely, and the thorny crap always seems to be trying to choke off the trail, cut up your hands, and stick something sharp through the seat of your pants when you’re not looking.
So, you cannot always be someplace beautiful and picturesque. And it’s all good. I watched my footing, and began admiring the patterns in the ice on the little pools and puddles of the old roads.
The cycle of freezing and thawing has given the ice an opportunity for experimentation with a lot of different shapes and textures. I just had a cellphone with me, but took some pictures to give an idea of what I’m talking about.
Usually the ice crystals around here are pretty, well, crystalline – – sharp-edged Art Deco/Jazz Age.
But this week, maybe because I’ve been looking at architecture from the turn of the last century, the streams and puddles around here seem to have a definite Art Nouveau look to them.
Not really presenting this post as a Fabulous Fall Foliage Photo Folio (please, say those last five words three times fast) – more as an advertisement for a neglected part of autumn.
Sumac is often scrubby and undistinguished, and every fall, I realized that it’s rarely mentioned, when people are exclaiming over the maples and aspens or whatever.
Kind of a mutt – – too leggy and sprawling to be used as a shrub in your yard, but seems too small to be a real “tree.” It usually grows like a big clump of weeds – – in neglected corners of fields, along roadways and railroad beds, or behind barns.
I read up on it a bit, and find that in other countries, the dried “fruit” is used as a lemony spice. I’ve never heard of anyone using the North American version in this way. But I’ve been informed, that I’ve eaten it, and liked it: it’s a key ingredient in Middle Eastern “za’atar” seasoning (there’s a lot of versions, but thyme, sesame seed, and dried sumac seem to be the constants).
Just try saying “Za’atar! Sumac! Sesame!” out loud, and see if it doesn’t sound pretty cool and exotic.
I’ve also read that Native Americans used the sections as pipe-stems, but I don’t know if this is true.
The Iroquois tribes around this area, grew beans, corn, and squash, but not peas, so I guess the pea-shooter idea was of no use to them, and they had to stick with tomahawks and arrows.
(Actually, we generally used the the smallest fruits from hawthorns, or inkberries, not actual peas, depending on the caliber of the shrub we’d cut that day). But there are two other attributes that make this little-noticed, unkempt little tree kind of special.
For kids in this part of the world, the little groves of sumac were the closest thing we’d experience to a bamboo thicket. Only kids could eel their way through the dense stands of sumac, like Br’er Rabbit escaping a fox. Say, hypothetically, if you used your pea-shooter to ambush a larger cousin walking by.
And every fall, having gone the entire summer in scruffy obscurity, it faithfully turns beautiful reds, yellows, and oranges.
Always, without fail. Having gone the entire summer in generic, innocuous obscurity, just as autumn begins, it flames out with style.
The leaves hang in festive rows, like tiny ceremonial banners for the autumn celebration, a mousey shrub suddenly looking quite elegant.
Sumacs are like the quiet, unassuming, small-town guys, that you always forget are Shriners, until one day, out of the blue, they break out their red velvet fezzes, have a few belts, and parade down the avenue in their crazy bright brocade uniforms.